Monday, February 11, 2019

100 Albums: "MTV Unplugged" by Alice In Chains

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Alice In Chains
Title: MTV Unplugged
Released: 1996
Genre: Acoustic Metal/Grunge


Alice In Chains had pretty much run their course when they put on this concert. They hadn't performed in 2 and a half years. 1995 had seen the release of Alice In Chains, but they didn't do anything else that year. They'd broken up for six months and been plagued by singer Layne Staley's heroin habit. This performance was recorded in April of 1996. They would put on their last performance with Staley in July of that year, after which he would disappear into his addiction and eventually die of an overdose in 2002. Writer and co-singer Jerry Cantrell would start a successful solo career, and the band would reform with new singer William DuVall in 2006.

I love Alice In Chains, and part of what I love about this album is that it is part greatest hits collection, part heavy metal deconstruction, and part swan song for Layne Staley. Their sound was defined by the way Staley's nasal vocals were layered over top of each other and against Cantrell's throaty baritone. Hearing these songs rendered acoustically takes away the buzzing vocals and crunching guitars and strips the songs down to their core melodic elements and simple Staley/Cantrell harmonies. Songs like Over Now, Down In A Hole, and Rooster really benefit from this rendering.

The performance is rough, but there's an honesty to it that I find compelling. They goof off and make mistakes. It's not captured on the album, but if you watch the DVD of the concert, they stop Sludge Factory and start it over because Staley flubs a lyric. The vocals on the chorus of Heaven Beside You sound out of key, and the guitar solo just doesn't land right. And then there are the little improvisational moments, like Cantrell riffing before they play their last song. Metallica were in the audience and had just cut their hair short, so the band poked fun at them. Bassist Mike Inez played a few bars of Enter Sandman which Staley introduced as an L.L. Cool J. song. It's a weird joke and not really funny, but it's also a very honest moment between friends having a laugh.

Further Listening: Jar Of Flies is the studio almost-an-album where they messed around with writing almost exclusively on acoustic guitars, and it produced two incredible songs: I Stay Away and No Excuses. Their self-titled album has studio versions of Heaven Beside You and Over Now and is a pretty solid album in its own right. Dirt is kind of scattershot, but it has more good songs than bad and several of their biggest hits.

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